What Is the Atacama Skeleton, and Why Is It So Controversial?

By: Mark Mancini  | 
atacama skeleton
This 6-inch (15-centimeter) mummified skeleton from the Atacama Desert in Chile came to light in 2003, sparking controversy and endless speculation about its origin. E. Smith/Genome Research/NIH

Key Takeaways

  • The Atacama skeleton, found in Chile's Atacama Desert in 2003, sparked speculation about extraterrestrial origins due to its unusual size (6 inches or 15 cm tall) and features (conical skull and fewer ribs).
  • Genetic research later confirmed the skeleton, nicknamed "Ata," is human, specifically a female fetus with several genetic mutations that might explain her physical characteristics.
  • The discovery raised ethical concerns regarding the illegal acquisition and handling of Ata, leading to calls for her respectful return and proper treatment as human remains.

In 2003, a skeleton was removed from the Atacama Desert in northern Chile. Originally buried in the ghost town of La Noria, it's strikingly small, measuring just 6 inches, or 15 centimeters, long.

The top of the skull has a distinct conical shape. It also has fewer ribs (10 pairs) than we would normally expect to see in a human being (people generally have 24 ribs arranged in 12 pairs).


Many UFO enthusiasts around the globe assumed this was the body of a tiny little alien. Other onlookers suggested the bones might've come from a nonhuman primate. In any event, the specimen — usually called the "Atacama skeleton" or just "Ata" for short — soon became world-famous.

Then in the 2010s, genetic research proved the remains are unequivocally human, despite all rumors or claims to the contrary.

Although that debate has been settled, Ata's story raises huge ethical concerns. In all likelihood, the body was obtained and sold illegally, something that's been pointed out by multiple scientific organizations in Chile.


How the Atacama Desert Creates Mummies

Seated between the Andes and the Chilean Coastal Mountain Range, the Atacama Desert covers around 40,500 square miles (roughly 105,000 square kilometers). As the driest nonpolar desert on Earth, the area does a remarkable job of preserving human remains.

"Bodies interred in the soil there quite regularly become spontaneously mummified," explained Arthur C. Aufderheide in his book, "The Scientific Study of Mummies."


Mother Nature can't take credit for all the desert's mummies, however. The ancient Chinchorro culture had a tradition of intentionally mummifying bodies here through a complex embalming process.

La Noria, the desert town that became Ata's not-so-final resting place, was established near some natural nitrate deposits. This valuable commodity is often used as a fertilizer. Before La Noria was ultimately abandoned in the 1930s, residents mined the nitrate and shipped it out by rail.

For a 2018 article that appeared in Etilmercucio, a Chilean science outreach publication, biologist Cristina Dorador painted an unsparing picture of everyday life in La Noria.

"The extreme conditions faced by the workers and their families included the highest solar radiation recorded anywhere on Earth, extreme water scarcity, stifling heat during the day, and extreme cold in the night, bad sanitary conditions among others ... As might be expected, child mortality was staggeringly high," she wrote.


The "Discovery" of the Atacama Skeleton

Ata surfaced in 2003, falling into the possession of a treasure-hunter named Óscar Muñoz.

Most accounts say he dug up the body at a La Norian burial site, although a few sources claim it was discovered lying on a shelf inside one of the town's deserted buildings.


Somewhere down the line, the Atacama skeleton was sold to Ramón Navia-Osorio. A Spanish business owner and private collector, he's also the president of the Institute for Research and Exobiological Studies, a prominent UFO organization.

Navia-Osorio later crossed paths with longtime ufologist Steven M. Greer at a 2009 conference. Greer — who has, among other things, lobbied the U.S. government to disclose what he believes to be alien-related research — got permission to take a bone marrow sample from Ata's body.

The plan was to have the material from the Atacama alien examined for "Sirius," a documentary inspired by one of Greer's books about extraterrestrials.

Then a microbiologist got in touch with Greer. Stanford University School of Medicine professor Garry Nolan caught wind of the upcoming film. He became intrigued by a promotional photo showing the Atacama skeleton.

"I decided to contact the movie directors (basically on a dare ...) to tell them it was possible to do a sequencing of the specimen (if it had earthly DNA ...) to determine its origin," Nolan told CNN.


Ata's Genome

The public got a sneak preview of Nolan's research in 2013, when Science magazine ran an article about his team's preliminary findings. "The DNA was modern, abundant and high-quality," he explained at the time. Nolan went on to say that he and his co-authors had revealed the Atacama skeleton "is human, there's no doubt about it."

Their much-anticipated study was finally published March 22, 2018, in the journal Genome Research.


Genomes, for the record, are the unique genetic codes possessed by all organisms. Using Greer's marrow sample, Nolan and his colleagues were able to carry out a detailed whole genome analysis of the Atacama skeleton.

When they compared Ata's genetic info to that of various primate species, like the chimpanzee, rhesus macaque and (of course) Homo sapiens, it became clear that the specimen is human, full stop. A close look at the chromosomes revealed she's a human female to boot — a fetus who probably died in the womb.

But hold on. How can we explain Ata's eye-catching physique?

Evidence of several genetic mutations was presented in the study. These would theoretically account for Ata's rib cage and cone-shaped head. Nolan's team also stated that her bones could have aged prematurely due to yet another mutation.

"Given the size of the specimen and the severity of the mutations ... it seems likely the specimen was a preterm birth," wrote the scientists in their 2018 Genome Research paper.


Broken Laws and the Ethics of Science

In more ways than one, this skeleton is on the young side. She's got well-preserved DNA, and based on our knowledge of how fast DNA breaks down over time, it's safe to say Ata is under 500 years old. As a matter of fact, she may have died within the past few decades.

So, there's a decent chance that one or both of her parents are still around today. The ethical questions begin when we imagine how either one of them might feel if they lived to see their child's body snatched, sold and then labeled as a "humanoid" by UFO gurus.


One also has to wonder about how they'd react to scientists drawing international attention to what was, for all we know, a private family tragedy.

The 2018 Genome Research paper faced a swift public outcry. Less than a week after the document was published, the Chilean Society of Biological Anthropology and the Chilean Association of Archaeologists both issued statements calling the study unethical.

Under Chilean law, it is illegal to "carry out archeological, anthropological or paleontological excavations" without first getting authorization from the country's Council of National Monuments. That probably didn't happen in Ata's case. Nor were any Chilean researchers involved in the Genome Research study, which became another bone of legal contention.

Some of the study's biological claims were criticized, too.

A follow-up paper published in August 2018 in the International Journal of Paleopathology argues that Ata's striking appearance could have very little to do with genetic mutations. Instead, parts of her skeleton might have been distorted or flat-out lost during her birth, mummification or burial.

Getting back to Nolan, he and one of his co-authors (Atul Butte of the University of San Francisco) later penned a statement defending their research. Noting that nobody on their team physically touched, or even saw, the actual skeleton, the two expressed their desire for Ata to be repatriated and "accorded proper respect as human remains."


Frequently Asked Questions

How do genetic mutations contribute to Ata's appearance?
Genetic mutations identified in Ata's DNA could account for her distinct physical traits, such as her small stature, conical skull shape and reduced number of ribs, suggesting a rare, possibly unknown condition.
What steps are scientists taking to ensure the ethical treatment of remains like Ata's in scientific research?
In response to the controversy over Ata, there's a growing call within the scientific community for stricter ethical guidelines and legal compliance in the treatment and study of human remains to emphasize respect and proper repatriation.